European Parliament's biomass proposal ignores realities of the climate crisis

14 September 2022

European Parliament's biomass proposal ignores realities of the climate crisis

The proposal maintains some incentives that encourage energy companies to burn forests

The European Parliament has voted to limit some energy companies' and Member States' incentives for burning forest biomass for energy, but not all. In its final opinion on the revision of the European Union (EU) Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the Parliament proposed ending direct and indirect subsidies rewarding energy obtained from burning primary woody biomass (unprocessed wood/roundwood), which accelerates the climate crisis and destroys biodiversity.

The Parliament also proposed capping at current levels this energy's eligibility to count towards Member States’ EU targets for renewable energy, and agreed on the principle of a “phase-down” of this cap by 2030. The definition adopted by the European Parliament for “primary woody biomass”, the cornerstone of the measures, has, however, been considerably weakened. This jeopardises the integrity of the proposed measures and their possible implementation.

Martin Pigeon, Fern’s forests and climate campaigner, said:

“The European Parliament’s opinion on woody biomass as a source of energy remains painfully far from the stark realities of the climate crisis. Major climate tipping points are closer than previously thought: we don’t have the decades needed for trees that are cut and burnt to grow back and recapture the carbon dioxide emitted.

The biomass industry told Members of the European Parliament the false narrative that a ‘ban’ on wood burning was at stake, whereas removing forest biomass from the RED incentives would just stop Member States from paying energy companies to burn forests.

The subsidies for the most climate-wrecking type of biomass – primary woody biomass - have been clawed back in principle, which could put an end to the largest biomass projects such as the conversion to biomass of more coal power plants. But the energy from this type of biomass can still, by and large, count towards renewables targets, and under current high energy prices this means forests will continue being destroyed and burned.”  

Small but meaningful measures proposed by the European Commission were also taken up, such as the exclusion of wood from primary and old growth forests as well as wetlands from qualifying as sustainable.

The text will now go to tripartite negotiations (trilogues) between the European Parliament, the European Council (representing Member States) and the European Commission.

Background notes

  • Climate and biodiversity impacts: By emitting more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of energy than most other fuels and weakening the land carbon sink, the burning of primary woody biomass worsens the climate crisis and further destroys biodiversity (as was again shown in a recent New York Times articleinvestigation). A major scientific analysis just revealedrevealed that climate tipping points could be reached at +1.5°C of warming, a threshold which we are certain to cross in the next few years.
  • Subsidies for burning forest biomass - The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) vote comes at a time that when renewable energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels. If this opinion were to be adopted, the energy from burning primary woody biomass would by-and-large no longer be rewarded with public subsidies, benefit from “green finance” (as defined by the EU Taxonomy) or the zero-rating of its CO2 emissions (with other conditions on this latter point). But there are huge loopholes in the definition of primary woody biomass (see below): a lot of this type of biomass (the worst for the climate) would remain eligible for such public financial support, even for producing electricity,1 which is a very inefficient process. Such subsidies would add to the huge profits the biomass industry is already receiving
  • Primary woody biomass energy still counts towards Member States’ renewable energy targets - one of the most difficult points in the negotiations was the issue of excluding the energy from burning primary woody biomass from Member States’ renewable energy targets, since this is also a huge incentive to burn biomass. The Environment Committee proposed to exclude it entirely, but a compromise was found in plenary to instead cap this at the average use over the past five years.2 This means that the same, hugely unsustainable levels of biomass could continue to be burnt.
  • “Phasing down” the above-mentioned cap? The compromise mentions a “phase down", rather than a “phase out” of the cap. But what the target for this phase down will amount to remains dependent on a Commission impact assessment which will be delivered three years after the Directive’s transposition – meaning it will be unlikely to make a difference by 2030.
  • Loopholes in the definition of primary woody biomass - The definition of “primary woody biomass” adopted by the Parliament uses the international definition for roundwood (the two terms are synonymous) but weakens it by adding a long list of exemptions3. Woody biomass from forests affected by undefined "natural disasters" in particular would be excluded from the definition, and therefore eligible for the RED’s incentives such as subsidies for the energy obtained from burning it. This definition is likely to be further weakened in the tripartite negotiations that will now commence, known as trilogues, as the Council's general approach on RED was worryingly conservative on forest biomass and did not even mention a definition of primary woody biomass.
  • “Sustainable harvesting” – the current RED II so-called “sustainable harvesting” criteria for forest biomass have been amended by the European Parliament, with a mixed result: while harvesting should now “ensure maintenance of soil quality and biodiversity with the aim of preventing negative impacts”, or “locally and ecologically appropriate thresholds for deadwood extraction”, it also talks about “preventing” clear-cuts “unless this leads to favourable and appropriate ecosystem conditions”… But in any case these criteria are only objectives for national legislation to aim for, not binding criteria.
  • Exclusion of wood from primary and old growth forests as well as wetlands from the RED’s incentives. The European Parliament has confirmed it supported the European Commission’s proposal to extend to forest biomass the exclusion of wood from high biodiversity areas (in particular primary and old growth forests) and land with a high carbon stock (in this case wetlands) from the RED’s incentives. This is important in light of recent investigations showing logging for bioenergy in Natura 2000 areas in Europe, or imports from Canada or the US where some of the wood is extracted from such forests.  

Disinformation and aggressive lobbying by the biomass industry and its allies. Industry is lobbying to defend the incentives they benefit from. Their narrative has conflated market incentives for woody biomass, which the RED defines, and actual woody biomass energy uses, which the RED does not define. Previous pieces published by biomass lobbyists such as this one by Bioenergy Europe argued that a “ban” of primary woody biomass would be at stake (see also this lobbying letter by Copa-Cogeca, the farmers’ lobby). In fact, the regulation of the energy uses of wood is separate from the RED (and sometimes addressed by local air quality regulations, as wood burning releases toxic emissions). Removing forest biomass from the RED’s incentives would simply mean the EU would stop encouraging Member States to pay energy companies to burn forests.

1) Ending public support to electricity produced out of burning forest biomass was proposed by the European Commission, but too many loopholes were added to the measure for it to remain meaningful in the final Parliament opinion.

2) The exact wording adopted is: “the energy share from solid biomass fuels derived from primary woody biomass as defined in Article 2 of this Directive shall be no more than the share of the overall energy consumption of the average of such fuel in 2017 - 2022 based on the latest available data.”

3) The full list of exemptions reads as follows: “This does not include woody biomass obtained from sustainable wildfire prevention measures in high-risk fire prone areas, woody biomass obtained from road safety measures, and woody biomass extracted from forests affected by natural disasters, active pests or diseases to prevent their spread, whilst minimising wood extraction and protecting biodiversity, resulting in more diverse and resilient forests, and shall be based on guidelines from the Commission;”

Categories: Press Releases, Bioenergy

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